France v Wales, Rugby World Cup Semi-Final, October 15
Fearless Wales on brink of history
October 14, 2011
Sam Warburton was won plaudits for his performances on and off the field © Getty Images
Fear is an incredibly powerful emotion. The threat of danger or pain can reduce even the bravest of souls to a shadow of their former selves. The sporting stage is not immune to such drama and how you deal with such a scenario is often the difference between success and failure. But better still is a refusal to be intimidated no matter what awaits you. Welcome to Wales' Rugby World Cup campaign.
Warren Gatland's side enter their semi-final showdown with France on Saturday on the back of a series of headline-grabbing performances from a narrow defeat to South Africa in a pulsating opener to an equally impressive victory over a revitalised Ireland side in last weekend's quarter-finals.
At the heart of their march into the business end of the competition has been a group of youngsters, most new to the World Cup and not scarred by Wales' previous failings, and who are now on the brink of propelling their side into the tournament finale for the very first time.
You would have thought that the prospect of arguably the greatest day in Welsh rugby history would unnerve those lacking in experience but no. While acknowledging the significance of the occasion, they simply refuse to be overawed. They are too busy having fun - and not the kind that got England into all sorts of trouble.
"I'm just loving going out on the pitch. Putting on the red jersey and playing for Wales," commented captain Sam Warburton, who believes the secret to success is to enjoy playing the game - no matter what. The 23-year-old flanker's beaming smile and reluctance to get carried away by his side's outstanding form hints at a potentially world-beating mindset. Warburton's star is rising at an incredible rate to the point where a player who only made his international bow in 2009 and was made his country's captain on the eve of the World Cup is now ranked alongside that of All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw and Australia's David Pocock - one of whom awaits in the final should Wales overcome the French.
But Warburton is not the only young gun threatening to gate-crash New Zealand's World Cup party. Bullocking 23-year-old centre Jamie Roberts is in the kind of outstanding form he produced on the British & Irish Lions' tour to South Africa in 2009, while 19-year-old wing George North is relishing every minute as he carves up pitches all over the country.
At just 23-year-old centre Jonathan Davies is another shining light in the Welsh armoury along with fullback Leigh Halfpenny, who is a familiar face but has yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday. The loss of 24-year-old fly-half Rhys Priestland is no doubt a blow but one they can weather experience stepping in for youthful exuberance in the form of James Hook.
The forwards boast just as much youthful talent evidently bound for greater things with rampaging 20-year-old Toby Faletau a dominant presence at the back of the scrum alongside Warburton and the industrious 23-year-old Dan Lydiate. Blended with the experience of the likes of Hook, wing Shane Williams, scrum-half Mike Phillips and loose-head Gethin Jenkins, the result is an exciting and productive rugby machine.
They are playing with confidence, pace, skill, intelligence and enviable cohesion. They are all clearly on the same page, there is no room for mavericks, and this is a unified and efficient team if ever there was one. Gatland and his coaching team deserve immense credit for not only nurturing this talent but doing so with perfect timing.
Victory over the French may not erase Wales' high-profile failings at the 2007 World Cup from the record books but will provide an infinitely more pleasurable memory for the rugby-made nation. But Warburton and co will not be getting ahead of themselves against an opponent who has won their last three meetings including an alarming defeat in this year's Six Nations.
France's World Cup campaign looked set to implode only a couple of weeks ago following back-to-back defeat including a shock reverse at the hands of Tonga. Reports of player rebellion plagued their camp and they looked ripe for the taking in the quarter-finals but we should have known better. A fragile England were the victims of French side that decided they weren't ready to go home and opted to play a bit of rugby instead.
Disinterested players were suddenly game breakers once more. The back-row trio of Julien Bonnaire, Thierry Dusautoir and Imanol Harinordoquy rediscovered their bite and will have their Welsh in their sights in what is sure to be a match-defining contest at the breakdown. Coach Marc Lievremont continues to fly in the face of contrary opinion with the selection of two scrum-halves - Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra - with the latter set to fill the No.10 shirt. But Yachvilli can also rightfully lay claim to the playmaker responsibility having tormented England with his boot.
France may have discovered their grunt and flair against England but they now face a Welsh defence that will not be so generous such is their organisation under the tutelage of Shaun Edwards. In addition, the French clearly tired in the latter stages of their victory over England while Wales' fitness and ability to perform for a full 80 minutes is one of the characteristics that have stood them out from their rivals up to this point.
But France make a habit of surprising fans and making fools of so-called experts and only last weekend there were signs of life where previously there had been none. Only time will tell what kind of French side turns up on Saturday night but the unknown holds no fear for Wales.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.